Photo of Professor José Iriarte

Professor José Iriarte

Professor of Archaeology


01392 724513

José Iriarte is an archaeologist and palaeoethnobotanist whose principal research interests are the investigation of coupled human environment systems in the Neotropics and subtropics of Latin America, plant domestication and the development of agricultural landscapes, and the emergence of complex societies in the Americas.

He currently directs the  ERC funded project Pre-Columbian Amazon Scale-Transformations (2014-2018) , the Je Landscapes of southern Brazil: Ecology, Power and History in a transitional landscapes during the Holocene project funded by AHRC-FAPESP (2014-2017), The origins of plant domestication in the upper Madeira River basin in lowland South America (NERC-2015-2016) and collaborates with Gill Jullef on the UKIERI project Climate and Culture: Environmental contextualisation of the development of human society in Western and Central India (2015-2016).

Find out about more about these projects at:


Research interests

Coupled human and natural systems: the legacy of past human impact in Amazonia and the Rio de la Plata Basin

Were the tropical forests of Amazonia a pristine, virgin forest inhabited by small band of hunter-gatherers or slash and burn horticulturalists passively adapting to the environment with a minimal impact on it or was it a cultural parkland, a manufactured landscape supporting large regionally organized, hierarchical societies with a larger impact on the environment? José s international interdisciplinary projects, which bring together archaeologists, archaeobotanists, paleoecologists, soil scientists and biologists investigate this crucial question in several case studies across Amazonia including the raised-field agricultural landscapes in the tropical savannas French Guiana and Bolivia, the geoglyphs of SW Amazonia and the megaliths of Amapa, Brazil. These projects have been funded by ERC, AHRC, NERC, Leverhulme Trust, the British Academy, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, CNRS-France and National Geographic Society. Find out more about  Fire-free pre-1492 land use in Amazonian savannas (PNAS 2012), Pre-Columbian agricultural landscapes  (PNAS 2010),  Phytolith and carbon isotopes from raised fields (JAS 2010), as well as its implications for a more sustainable future in Ecological Engineering.

Watch Unnatural Histories (BBC4), Voice of America and read Discovery Channel News and OGlobo (Brazil) to learn more about José’s research.


Pre-Columbian Amazon-Scale Transformations (PAST). ERC (2014-2017)

Je Landscapes of southern Brazil: Ecology, History and Power in a Transitional Landscape during the Late Holocene. AHRC (UK) - FAPESP (Sao Paulo, Brazil) (2014-2017).

The origins of plant domestication in the upper Madeira River basin in lowland South America. NERC (2015).

Climate and Culture: Environmental contextualisation of the development of human society in Western and Central India. UKIERI (2015-2016).


Pre-Columbian land use and impact in the Bolivian Amazon. Leverhulme Trust (2010-2013). 

Environmental impact of the Pre-Columbian 'geoglyph builders' in western Amazonia. National Geographic Society (2011).

Sacred places and funerary rites: the longue durée of southern Jê monumental landscapes. Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (2010-2011).

Investigating the Socio-Political Organization of Early Formative Taquara/Itararé Societies: Regional Survey and Excavations in the Piray Mini Basin, Interior Atlantic Forest, Argentina. National Geographic Society (2009-2010)

Ecology and archaeology of the coastal savannas of French Guiana: landscapes co-constructed by man and nature? CNRS-France (2007-2010) 


Plant Domestication and the dispersal of Agriculture

José is also interested in early plant domestication and the spread of agriculture in the Americas. He uses plant microfossils, including phytoliths, starch grains and pollen from archaeological sites and lake and wetlands to research these problems. You can read his new ideas about plant domestication and early dispersal of agriculture in his co-edited book Rethinking Agriculture. Also look for his and his colleagues articles on maize (Zea mays L.) domestication in Mexico (PNAS 2009) and about early maize dispersals in Peru (PNAS 2012) and Uruguay (Nature 2004). Jose’s ideas about the diversity of early food production systems in the Americas can be read in Current Anthropology. Read news about maize domestication at  NSF and ScienceDaily.



Dr Iriarte is happy to supervise postgraduate research students working in the following areas: phytolith analysis, human environmental interactions, plant domestication and the early dispersal of agriculture, landscape archaeology and Formative cultures of the Americas.

Find out more at his personal web-site.

Research supervision

I supervise PhD students in the following subject areas: 

·         Latin American Archaeology (in particular lowland South America)

·         Archaeobotany (in particular phytolith and starch grain analysis)

·         Coupled human and environment systems

·         Climate Change Archaeology

·         Plant Domestication, Dispersal of Agricultre

Research students

Recently completed:

Rafael Corteletti:  'Upper Canoas Archaeological Project: A Study of the Jê presence on the Santa Catarina Plateau' (Projeto Arqueológico Alto Canoas: um estudo da presença Jê no planalto catarinense) CNPq PhD Studentship, MAE-USP (São Paulo, Brazil), University of Exeter (started 2010).

Ciprian Ardelean 'Spatial, Chronological and Cultural Frames Concerning the Archaeology of Hunters-Gatherers during the Early Lithic Stage: A Reassessment of the Pleistocene Human Occupation on Central-Northern Mexico'.

Priscilla Ulgim Ferreira 'The Analysis of cremated remains from the southern Brazilian highlands: A study of sites RS-PE-21, RS-PE-29 and SC-AG-108? MA in Archaeology', Wenner-Gren Foundation/College of Humanities, University of Exeter.

Phillip Riris 'Predictive modelling in Misiones Province, Argentina using GIS: a case study of the Taquara/Itararé tradition' (MA in Archaeology).


Jennifer Watling:  'Environmental impact of the pre-Columbian geoglyph builders of western Amazonia'. AHRC PhD studenship, Fox Fund-College of Humanities, University of Exeter.

Jonas Gregorio de Souza: 'Caminhos para o poder nas terras altas do sul: diversidade arquitectonica, funcao e mudanza nos centros ceremonias Taquara/Itarare' (preliminary title - started 2013). CAPES PhD studentship.

Lautaro Hilbert:  'Amazonian Dark Earth Agroecosystems do Amazonas Central' (preliminary title started 2013). CAPES PhD studentship.

Daiana Travassos:  'Santarem Culture Amazonian Dark Earth Agroecosystems of the Lower Tapajos' (preliminary title). CAPES PhD studentship.


Prof.  Iriarte did his Licenciatura Degree in Archaeology at the Universidad de la Republica, Montevideo, Uruguay. After that, he pursued his Ph.D. sponsored by Fulbright Comission at University of Kentucky (USA) under the advisory of Dr. Tom Dillehay.

His dissertation, entitled "The Transforming Landscape of the Mid-Holocene and the Social Construction of Early Formative Communities in Southeastern Uruguay, La Plata Basin", was framed as a multidisciplinary study integrating both archaeological and paleoenvironmental data including phytolith, pollen, starch grain, and faunal analyses to investigate human-environment interactions and the emergence of cultural complexity.

Before joining the Department of Archaeology at Exeter, Dr Iriarte carried out a post-Doctoral Fellowship at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute where he participated as phytolith analyst for the project "Environmental and agricultural history in the central Balsas watershed" directed by Dolores Piperno.

Honorary Positions:
Honorary Research Associate, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panama

Memberships of Societies and Professional Bodies:
Member of the Society for American Archaeology
Member of the World Archaeological Congress
Member of the Society for Phytolith Research
Member of Grupo de Estudios Fitolíticos Aplicados del Cono Sur
Member of the Sociedad de Arqueología Uruguaya
Serve on the NERC Peer Review College